Say It Loud

I like that people are speaking out.  I like that customers are letting corporations know what they think.  It’s good for democracy and free enterprise.  It’s great for business.

Bank Transfer DayLast week one individual, 27-year-old art gallery owner Kristen Christian, kicked off a true grass-roots movement that came to be known as Bank Transfer Day.  No one told her to do it, no giant entity or association formally backed her cause, she just did it and thousands of people got on board.  Since September 29, 2011 when Bank of America announced its $5.00 debit card fee, as many as 650,000 new credit union accounts have been opened.  This past week, Bank of America changed its mind about charging that fee.  You think they aren’t listening?  Maybe not as carefully as they should be, but it is clear some message got through.  This is how it should be.

Companies must never forget why they exist — to serve customers.  When they forget that, they are on a slippery slope.  Corporations can have a tendency to be inward thinking, they can focus with intense obsession on their internal issues, efficiencies, operations, politics, succession plans, and tactics for improved profitability.  Internal company struggles can become engrossing to the exclusion of more important matters, like creativity and customer focused quality.  When companies forget about customers, the other stuff ceases to matter.  They need to be reminded of that often and with passion.  Don’t feel bad when you complain or move your business, you are helping them.  They need to hear from us.  Our voice is vital to their survival.  If they don’t believe that and embrace it as a core value, creative destruction will do its job.

As I have written before, we are customers, we cannot allow ourselves to be reduced to the notion of being treated as consumers.  Customer service in a company needs to be both reactive and proactive:

Reactive customer service is when you call them to identify an issue or concern, the person on the phone or chat or responding to your email should do everything possible to solve your problem.  Great companies love these inbound calls, because each contact point is an opportunity to bond a customer for life.  If something goes wrong and a customer service person “makes the save,” your loyalty and lifetime value to that company can increase exponentially.  Conversely, if the customer service person manhandles the “win-back” moment, not only are you likely to be gone, you are likely to take a few dozen of your friends or the company’s future prospects from them, maybe more with the power of social media.  Again, you are doing the company a favor.  If you give them a chance to be helpful and they succeed, you have invested in their brand.  If they let you down, you teach them a lesson they need to learn quickly before their brand is permanently damaged.

Proactive customer service is the job of listening to customers before an action occurs, reading the trends and common themes that flow through the data bases of feedback systems.  Did banks know of the anger of the 650,000 customers who opened credit union accounts last month?  Some did and some didn’t.  Did they act in advance?  Did yours?  Why not?  If they are taking your business for granted, they deserve to lose it.  We all have options.  Proactive customer service focuses on retention activity in advance of crisis.  After crisis, it’s a public relations campaign, the spin doctors join the fray.  That may have worked a generation ago, but not so much today.  When we go, we are gone.

The Bank Transfer Day effort was careful to acknowledge that although it shared some inspiration from the activities of Occupy Wall Street, it was not part of that movement, it was its own thing.  Here again, the idea of customer voice is the key takeaway — what is being said, what is being heard, how can this help make systems function better?  Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Greene suggested the same basic idea, that “We Should Listen to the 99%” because they “are giving us a chance to address our problems before they grow worse.”  Neither Greene nor I are suggesting that every idea being articulated by OWS is necessarily actionable, but there is most certainly upside in listening and nothing but downside in ignoring the voices of passion.  If people have something to say, business is always well advised to listen.

And how about Congress, where the public approval rating dropped to 9%, are these elected officials not in need of working much harder at hearing?  Never has the need for the public’s voice been in more demand, and yet, as so many of us keep asking, is anyone listening?  The debt ceiling follow-up deadline for the Super Committee is November 23, just weeks away.  I don’t sense a consensus plan on the horizon or an amicable resolution, seems like business as usual in Washington to me.  Maybe we aren’t making enough phone calls or sending enough emails, we are much too polite.

It takes courage to speak out, to draw attention to oneself in a public forum and ask to be heard.  Likewise it takes courage in a corporation to align with the customer and advocate for improvements in the enterprise that cause customers to embrace goods and services along the lines of brand.  How much do banks spend on advertising to drive people through their doors?  What is the lifetime value of your business to a bank, to any company for that matter?  Can the banks not offer us valuable services over the course of a lifetime that produce reasonable profits?  Of course they can, or there would be no such sector.  While corporations worry about driving the value of their share prices, is there any better way to create value than to address customer needs and build lifelong customer relationships?  These are the backbone of profits, not much else that isn’t short-term financial engineering.  When innovation is applied to addressing real customer needs, good things happen for buyers and sellers.

It is so easy to give up and think that one individual cannot make a difference, but then someone like Kristen Christian comes along, fires up a Facebook page and shows us that there is power in the fabric of our nation.  That power of responsiveness is at the core of what can make a business great.  Our economic system can serve us well if we demand that it be responsive.  Don’t be quiet.  If you have something to say, say it and share it and drive the companies who need to earn your respect to work harder for the privilege to serve you.  When businesses listen they can only get better, help them to hear you by being brave and bold and honest.  A robust feedback loop makes good business sense, and everyone can have a say in that.  This is a business proposal with unlimited potential.

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